Let all flowers bloom

23 May

Listen carefully – above the polite tinkling of teacups and the clip-clip of pruning shears, you might hear the faint suggestion of a row brewing at that most English of events, the hardy annual that is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show.

Last year there was an audible murmur of disquiet at the fact that out of the 15 most prestigious show gardens, only 2 were designed by women.  Indeed, since 2000 only around a quarter of all show gardens have involved women designers, and only one female designer has won ‘best in show’.

To their credit, the event organisers recognised the issue and promised to do more to encourage female entrants and to rectify the gender deficit.  The RHS looked at its processes and found that female designers weren’t getting on the shortlists, and so have encouraged more women to apply to show their work at Chelsea. This year the number of show gardens has been increased to 17, and 6 have been designed by women. So far, so good.  Among the show gardens is the first to be entered by a black female designer, Juliet Sargeant.  She has been quoted as saying that horticulture is quite a traditional profession and could do more to encourage participation by people from all walks of life in the flower show, and from ethnic minorities in particular.

While some (notably Diarmuid Gavin the TV gardening veteran) have been supportive of her comments, other including Alan Titchmarsh have been critical, saying that gardening is a great leveller enjoyed by all.  The Chelsea flower show selection panel chair has argued that the RHS does much to encourage all communities to take part in horticulture, and to gain apprenticeships, and said that Sargeant was being ‘publicity-seeking’ by raising the issue of diversity.

However, the evidence that Chelsea is unrepresentative seems pretty compelling – at the community level it’s true that people from all walks of life, both female and male, enjoy gardening and have considerable expertise.  But there is no getting away from the fact that the Society of Garden Designers enjoys 70% female membership, but women have produced relatively few show gardens.  And there are a range of hurdles to getting on the roster for the Chelsea show, which might deter many without unusual determination, and, importantly, the ability to cultivate connections as well as plants.

2014 gold medal winner Charlotte Rowe wrote in the Guardian last year about the labyrinthine process of getting a show garden design from drawing board to Chelsea. This involves getting a charity partner and a commercial sponsor, as well as coming up with a strong, original design.  Show gardens do not come cheap – costing upwards of £300,000 to put on, and it may be that this poses particular challenges for women seeking funding.  It has been shown in many professional contexts that investors often favour male candidates, and that selection panels have a tendency to recruit males over females, so garden design is unlikely to be much different.  And like many creative professions, it is majority female in the lower echelons, but male-dominated at the top.

So it seems a shame that there has been a spat over the discussion of diversity at Chelsea.  Charity involvement means that social justice issues are often highlighted in the show. Alan Titchmarsh’s comments about gardening being open to all, included the observation that ‘nearly everybody has a front garden’.  This seems to go against the RHS’s own pre-show foray into media, which revealed that the high number of rental properties in the UK, means that many front gardens are disappearing under concrete, or left neglected by tenants with little motivation to do gardening in a place that is not their own.  These trends particularly affect the young, urban population – surely the kind of people Sargeant was talking about encouraging to take part in horticulture.  A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it would be a good thing if big names in garden design were attached to someone young, female or non-white a bit more often.



Different for girls?

20 Apr

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on graduate incomes and social mobility has caused a bit of a stir. Researchers had access to data which meant they could link information on students’ institution of study and subject choice, and their subsequent earnings for up to ten years. The headline findings were that those from the wealthiest backgrounds earn significantly more than students from poorer families, even when they had studied for similar degrees in similar places; and that economics and medicine were the subjects with the highest-earning graduates. Less prominently reported were some marked gender differences in outcomes.

Given our unequal society and uneven education provision, it may not come as a shock that students from higher-income backgrounds end up earning more (10% more at median income levels after taking subject studied and institution attended into account).  But men’s earning advantage over similarly-educated women is striking, especially since the student population has been majority female for some time now.

While men’s median earnings ten years on were £30,000, women’s were £27,000 – this compares to figures for non-graduates of £22,000 and £18,000 respectively.  Therefore, graduating as a woman means gaining a slightly larger premium on average, but at lower earnings levels than is the case for men.  So studying may lift women a little further above others with fewer qualifications, but it does not necessarily put them on a par with similar male graduates, nor does the advantage grow at the same rate at the top of the income scale as occurs for men.  Men from the wealthiest backgrounds earn about 20% more than men from less well-off backgrounds in the top 10% of each group; for women the equivalent gap is 14%, indicating that being an advantaged male carries the biggest labour force premium of all.

If you take the two subjects with the highest earners of all, medicine and economics, the advantage of being a man becomes clear.  The two subjects have different profiles in terms of who studies them – the majority of medical students have been female for some time now, while under one third of economics students are women.  But no matter what the gender balance of students, the IFS results show that men earn more.  And the difference between men and women at the highest levels of income in each subject is clear.

Economics has the highest rewards at the highest levels, with the top 10% of women earning upwards of £94,000 – but the top 10% of men are earning at least £121,000; roughly 12% of male economics graduates will earn £100,000 or more, compared to 9% of women.

In medicine, women earn around £69,000 to make the top 10%, while for men the equivalent figure is £85,000. In a subject where most graduates are female, this difference seems worthy of attention.  Perhaps choice of speciality also has a role in the differential, as women remain rare in some high-status areas such as surgery.

Most of the media discussion of the IFS findings has been devoted to the stalled social mobility indicated by the persistent earning advantage enjoyed by students from the wealthiest backgrounds.  But even the most advantaged women in Britain are not earning the same as their male counterparts.  This raises the question of other underlying differences between men and women in progress from school to the labour market.   Men are more likely to study economics and STEM subjects, and women more likely to opt for arts subjects.  The study found that creative arts degrees had the lowest earners of all, and these courses are 55% female on intake.

But the example of medicine shows that even where women study a high status subject in high numbers, they are not reaping the same rewards as men. Ten years on, many erstwhile students will have become parents, and some may be looking after their own parents.  The impact of caring work is still experienced predominantly by women, and this is likely to play a part in the differences in earnings between male and female graduates, no matter what their field.  Alongside discussions of higher education’s role in improving social mobility, perhaps we should be talking more about the role of effective policies for shared parental leave and flexible working options.

It has been pointed out during the current junior doctors’ pay dispute that doctors working part-time (80% of whom are female) will lose out under the new contract proposals, which remove pay increments and reduce maternity pay and ‘on-call’ rates for those working less than full-time equivalent.  No wonder there has been anger that the government equality impact document reads “Any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end.”  While doctors have benefited from some pay equalisation up to now, the graduate earnings data suggests that women doctors are less likely to progress to the top rates of pay than man, even in the system as it is.

And a survey of women in the finance sector (a likely destination for top-earning economists) reported this week that two thirds of women felt that being female put them at a professional disadvantage, and that they would not recommend their career to their daughters. If this is how women at the top of the highest earning professions feel, what about the rest of us? Since women graduates consistently earn less than men – and male non-graduates also earn more than females, it seems that we cannot continue to believe that gender equality has basically been achieved.  The figures suggest that it is still true that it pays to be a man, and that even at the top, it really is different for girls.









Happy Birthday Shared Parental Leave

5 Apr

Happy Birthday to you

Daddies can take leave too

But you don’t replace their wages

So not many do


Happy Birthday to you

Mummies are employed too

But they have to give Dads their leave

So they can parent à deux


Happy birthday to you

Time to see culture change through

But we haven’t gone Nordic

No daddy months, boo hoo


Happy Birthday to you

A step the right way it’s true

But I’m getting impatient

For gender equality, aren’t you?





Candy Chancellor (with apologies to the Candy Man)

17 Mar

Who can take some storm clouds

Sprinkle them with dues

Cover them with cuts and a miracle or two

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good.


Who can take tax thresholds

Raise them with a smile

Cut tax and business rates

For your local shopping aisle

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good


Now talk about youth in crisis

You can even have lifetime ISAs


Oh who can take tomorrow

Dip it in a dream

Leave sorrow with the poor

and give the fat cats all the cream

The Candy Chancellor can

The Candy Chancellor can

‘Cause he mixes in a sugar levy

And makes the world look good

Women just can’t win

28 Feb

Back in September, EDF, the energy company, launched a campaign to inspire girls to take part in science. They called it ‘Pretty Curious’, and the accompanying hashtag drew some criticism on twitter, as it associated girls’ interest with their appearance, and suggested that science has to be stereotypically feminised in order to appeal to female students. A similar approach had already led IBM to end a campaign called ‘HackAHairdryer, which was widely viewed as sexist. However, EDF defended its strapline as a way of opening the conversation on involving girls in science, and persisted in its plans to mount a series of science engagement events, culminating in a competition where students entered ideas for a domestic gadget.

This competition, the #PrettyCuriousChallenge, was opened to boys as well as girls, apparently on grounds of ‘fairness’, which is an odd decision when related to a campaign based on the fact that girls are underrepresented in science. As you may have seen in headlines, the ultimate irony is, that the competition was won by a boy. Yes, that’s right, a campaign with the stated aim ‘to change girls’ perceptions of STEM and encourage them to pursue science based careers’ , ended up with a male competition winner. How was the winner chosen? Well, a shortlist of entries was drawn up by a panel including girl students and then the entries were put to a public vote. Is it surprising that a boy won? No. A cursory glance at the literature around unconscious bias and science shows again and again that gender is a factor in hiring decisions, in perceived competence of scientists, and in rating work authored by men and women respectively. We still live in a world where men are advantaged because of baseline unconscious assumptions everyone makes about competence, credibility and science. I recently came across a study which showed that men’s academic work is rated more highly when it concerns stereotypically ‘male’ topics, while women’s – which is rated less well – suffers even more when in ‘male’ territory. So wider perceptions of girls are likely to influence public judgement of submitted work in science.

And this is perhaps the heart of the problem: shifting girls’ perceptions of STEM is only one part of the recipe required to make science more gender-equal. We need to address all the cultural and systemic reasons why women are less likely to persist in science or to be promoted in science careers once they are there. We need to confront the fact that this is about perceptions of women in an unequal society, not just girls’ own perceptions of their interests.

Jackie Fleming, the feminist cartoonist, has just written a book about women’s achievements being excluded from history. In a recent interview she points out that by not learning about the ingenuity of women in school, both girls and boys internalise the message that men are the important ones and women haven’t done much. This impression of women is cemented she says by ‘not giving them prizes, obviously, as that tends to go down in history’ . As I read that, I thought of what an own goal EDF has scored – the male winner will be on the record of their campaign to encourage women in science. It’s not the boy’s fault – I blame society.


Universal Credit – for men?

3 Feb

Last month I wrote a blog about the Prime Minister’s speech on supporting families, where he referred to parenting as a ‘job’, and families as ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Where in all this material and professional concern, I asked, was an acknowledgement of caring work in family life?

Seeing the discussion of the projected impacts of Universal Credit on different family types, I have to ask the question again. For today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that working single parents will lose the most income through the Universal Credit system, and second earners in couples will have reduced incentives to work, in contrast to the overall impact of the scheme, which will apparently do more to make work pay for recipients. While transitional arrangements will shield current claimants, the impact assessment looks at what will happen in the longer-term.

So why is this a gender issue? Well, in spite of increasing numbers of hands-on fathers and breadwinning women, 9 out of 10 single parents are still women, and dual-earning households most often have male chief wage earners. Secondary earners are often working part-time and doing most of the childcare in families. So we have two groups of working mothers (single parents, part-time employees) who are likely to find it hard to compensate for the reduced income or reduced incentives to move into or stay in employment, which Universal Credit will present. Because of their caring responsibilities, they are likely to find it difficult to increase hours or pay, in order to make up for any losses, alongside paying for additional childcare.

The government is likely to respond that the offer of 30 hours free childcare, along with rises in income tax thresholds, will help resolve these issues. But as I and many others have pointed out, the childcare proposals are underfunded, and quality childcare is least likely to be available in deprived areas, so that the poorest parents may have problems accessing it. And if you are amongst the lowest earners and/or work part-time, the tax thresholds may not make any difference to you. You will simply be left worse off, and your children will still need to be cared for.

Disincentives for second earners to work under Universal Credit are troubling because they may damage mothers’ future financial prospects. This is firstly because they make it less worthwhile to remain in work, so that more women may spend longer out of the workforce; and secondly because the Universal Credit system proposes making all payments to one person in every household, thus breaking the principle where child-related payments were made to mothers. This second feature may not matter if you are in a good relationship with access to a joint account, but it could be very disadvantageous where unsympathetic partners control access to family finances.

It appears then that the benefits of Universal Credit are not quite as universal as the name suggests. And without acknowledgement of the value – and constraints – of caring work, it is likely to give more credit to men’s work than to women’s.








Hard-working families or hard work in families?

11 Jan

We all know how much the government loves ‘hard-working families’ – during the election campaign you could place the phrase on your buzzword bingo card and be sure to contribute to a full house most days. And in the months since, with the spending review and the ongoing austerity programme, few days go by without reference to hard-working families, who are ‘doing the right thing’ and being rewarded for it with plaudits and ‘incentives’ in policies.

As for family and relationship support, David Cameron has made a speech today about enhanced funding for counselling for couples, and the launch of a more universal provision of parenting classes. He says that parenting is ‘the most important job we’ll ever have’ – and yet the work that goes on inside families – which means that our children and other loved ones are fed, clothed, nurtured, and supported to be useful members of society in their turn – does not seem to be the main concern here. There’s a bit of talk about discipline and control of behaviour, but the Prime Minister’s focus appears to be primarily economic – he goes on to say that:

‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.’

So families are front and centre because they are a defence against poverty, not because functioning relationships are valuable in themselves? The cynic might say that families are to be buttressed piecemeal, to deal better with the shrinkage in public services which have been deeply cut …

It’s striking that the language around families has become so professionalised – parenting is a ‘job’ encompassing skills or services – ‘welfare, education and counselling’ – the word ‘care’ does not seem to have much prominence here. And yet caring is at the heart of the hard work that goes on inside families, it’s what keeps everybody going, and what enables people to go out into the world and do other useful things. You cannot resign from parenthood – nor are you promoted for doing it well. So it’s not a typical job at all. It’s about building and sustaining relationships over time. Something that caring may have in common with jobs in the labour market is that it’s a lot easier to put up with the bad days if you have enough money. Poverty makes the strains of caring more difficult to bear, and caring needs to be accommodated alongside paid work. If all the talk around families is about jobs, caring gets overlooked. That’s ironic, as many would say it’s what makes being in families worthwhile.


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